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Developments in military space technologies. An extract

Gp Capt. TH Anand Rao

Edited by Air Vice Marshal Anil Golani (retd) and Gp Captain Vijay Shankar RanaSpace technologies of the 21st century, aided by miniaturization and enabled by a software revolution have facilitated the accessibility to space, thus, fuelling the rapid growth of space objects in the Earth’s orbit. These technological developments being dual use, will also have military utility and, thus, the fears of vitiating the space environment would always remain. Despite the deep military underpinnings of many of these space technologies, the reduction in costs of space companies has meant more commercialisation of space and a potentially booming space economy. Some major game changer technologies are given in the subsequent paragraphs.

Rendezvous and Proximity Operations: Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPOs) were being tested since 2005 by the US under the Demonstration of Automated Rendezvous Technologies (DART) project. This is a primary capability required for automated docking of capsules to a spaceship. Besides docking with spaceships, the RPO has multiple utility. This one single game changer capability has enabled multiple options for civil and military satellite operators. RPO has been used for satellite-on-satellite approaches by Russia and China for unknown reasons. The US too has exercised this activity with its own satellites. The known purposes are for repair and servicing, refuelling of satellites and a satellite inspection. RPO, being a dual use phenomenon, the unknown activity could be for military purposes which vary from a flyby inspection to electronic jamming, lasing or even causing physical damage. This capability is also being planned for experiments to attach with dead satellites and bring them closer to the Earth’s atmosphere for a burn up.

Satellite Servicing: RPO is also the primary capability required for satellite repair and servicing. This will include robotic repairs, replacement of solar panels and even refuelling of the target satellite. These activities—especially refuelling—give a fresh lease of life to satellite and can increase the satellite’s life much beyond the design life of 7-8 years in low Earth Orbit (LEO). Satellite servicing is set to change the economics of the space industry, the mantra being to ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Repair, Refuel in space!

Reusability: Reuse of space rockets has been the major factor in bringing down launch costs. From being able to reuse the first stage rocket engine, successfully being done by SpaceX for the Falcon 9 boosters, we are now on the verge of fully reusable rockets under trial. Space X’s Big Falcon rockets and Blue Origin’s ‘New Shephard’ rocket are set to be the first fully reusable rockets. The small rocket manufacturer ‘Rocket Labs’ is promising a game changer rockets. The small rocket manufacturer ‘Rocket Labs’ is promising a game changer rocket called the ‘Neutron’ which will have full reusability and is expected to have a first launch in 2024.

Spacelift: Space transportation is being envisioned in a novel concept which would entail passengers and logistics being spacelifted—not only to planetary destinations like the Moon and Mars, but from one place to another on the Earth. This will be made possible with fully reusable rockets like the Neutron becoming a reality. Spacelift is akin to airlift, the difference being in the mode of transport. A rocket with load and passenger carrying capacity could be launched, orbited, and made to land at a destination across the globe in a matter of a few minutes. Spacelift could be particularly useful for strategic transportation of military equipment and personnel.

Responsive Launch Options: Launching satellites on demand or responsive launch is a critical capability for enhanced national security requirements. This capability basically involves the ability to launch satellites at short notice or within a quick turnaround time. Such quick launches are used for tactical military reconnaissance, replacing lost satellites or even restoration of services caused by unserviceable satellite payloads. The responsive launch can happen from conventional land-based launch facilities, ship-based launch facilities or air-launched from a mother aircraft releasing a rocket at high altitude. ‘Virgin Orbit’ of the USA has demonstrated this capability with its ‘Launcher One’ rocket released from a modified Boeing-747 at 35,000-40,000 ft altitude and the facility has been operational since January 2021. A more recent development in responsive launch capability is the concept of rockets orbiting in space for a payload release on requirement. The trend, therefore, is moving towards reduction in timeframes between launch preparations to ‘on-orbit’. While this is a positive development for the space industry and military space strategists, it is a nightmare for the ever-increasing burden on airspace and orbital space, as the current air and space traffic regulating environment, and surveillance technologies are not conducive to such short notice space launches. Unless there is coordination at a global level for managing space bound traffic with corresponding tracking sensors, responsive launch will be a safety hazard with the present rate of growth in the satellite populations.

Cost Reduction: A major driver for the growth of commercial space exploration is the cost factor. Innovative technologies have assisted in bringing down launch costs to affordable levels. Additive manufacturing is one such practice which has converted large multi-piece assemblies into a single part, leading to reduction in volume, weight, cost, and lead time. Similarly, use of simulation systems has reduced the development time by several months. Software has been used to study the 3D flow of the rocket engine exhaust plume which has enabled reduction of exhaust temperatures by an order of magnitude.

Nuclear Powered Satellites: A major consideration for the life of a satellite, besides other factors, is the availability of on-board fuel to manoeuvre the satellite to keep it in the designated orbital slot. Nuclear power is an option, which has the advantage of providing unlimited life for generating power for propulsion as well as powering on-board systems, thereby replacing on-board batteries and solar panels. Though this is not a new phenomenon, there is a renewed effort in this direction. The US and the erstwhile Soviet Union had made use of nuclear power at the dawn of the space age to power their lunar missions using radio isotope power sources. These countries had also tested nuclear thermal propulsion systems and space reactors, but abandoned space nuclear research at the end of the Cold War.

Today, nuclear propulsion provides an exciting opportunity to overcome the limitations to satellite propulsion and electric power, which could result in an era of satellites with unrestricted lives and manoeuvrability. There is a strategic mandate too for this. It gives the satellites and other spacecraft the ability to manoeuvre quickly to avoid emerging threats from adversaries, be it a kinetic ASAT weapon or a co-orbital satellite in proximity. Russia is pursuing several concepts, including a fission reactor to power an electronic warfare satellite and a reactor to power an ion engine to create a space tug. The US tested a small reactor in 2018—tiny kilopower—which is the first domestic reactor designed, built and operated in decades by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). China too is investing aggressively in nuclear powered spacecraft.

Quantum Communication: Satellite communication and datalinks are a critical vulnerability and will be an easy target for jamming and interference measures by an adversary during a conflict. Loss of communication with a satellite may render it useless, or much worse, may result in loss of control of the satellite. Hence, securing these data-links will be an essential measure to safeguard satellites from unlawful interference. Quantum communication techniques have enabled a different means of encryption which is secure. Quantum communication, or quantum key distribution, allows sharing of encrypted data that is transferred through particles known as qubits. These particles are also called photons—a unit of light which can be bunched up in phases or entangled to give a coding effect. China has taken the lead on experimenting with the quantum communication techniques on satellites. In 2016, the Micius satellite in LEO communicated with two ground observatories in Delingha and Nanshan in China, which are separated by 1,200 km as proof of the concept. This satellite was used for an encrypted video call between Beijing and Vienna in 2017. In the same year, China also established the first long-distance quantum communication landline in the world, connecting Beijing with Shanghai.

Artificial Intelligence: Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become a game changer by exponentially increasing the depth of possibilities for space exploitation and exploration. Although the list would be endless, some applications of AI in space are: processing of satellite images, system monitoring of satellites, development of satellites and spacecraft, autonomous spacecraft navigation, docking and proximity operations, supporting the large satellite constellations for relative positioning, communication and end-of life management, etc. The military utility of AI is immense and could include shortening of the decision matrix, wherein a satellite could collect data and possibly evaluate the data and simultaneously assign the optimal weapon solution to eliminate a target. This will invariably enhance the capability in time sensitive targeting while shortening the sensor-to-shooter loop.

Robotics and AI are inherently linked. Robotics is already being used in space for some activities like spacecraft repair, satellite servicing and debris capture.

Another area for employment of AI which is fast developing is for an enhanced Space Situational Awareness (SSA) architecture. This would involve autonomous tracking and cataloguing of space objects and debris as well as an autonomous alerting service. It is also possible to see future satellites—especially large constellations—receive autonomous collision avoidance alerts and the satellites could perform autonomous avoidance manoeuvres.


Edited by Air Vice Marshal Anil Golani (retd) and Gp Captain Vijay Shankar Rana
Knowledge World Publishing Ltd, Pg 218, Rs 1,40


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